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Feds halt Mexican gray wolf kills in Arizona, New Mexico in bid for genetic diversity

To foster the Mexican gray wolves’ long term success in the Southwest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced it will lift a 325-animal cap on the population according to a draft of the proposed rule published Friday.

Lobbying by livestock producers drove the federal government to exterminate the Mexican gray wolf during the early half of the 20th century. Following the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the last wild Mexican gray wolves were captured and raised in captivity until the U.S. government decided to reintroduce the animals in 1998. 

An estimated 196 Mexican wolves now live in Arizona and New Mexico, in addition to 35 in Sonora, Mexico.

The rule change comes as part of a settlement agreement in the Center for Biological Diversity’s 2015 lawsuit against the federal government.

The conservation group described the rule change as a step forward, but one that lacks the urgency needed to really help the wolves.

“Mexican gray wolves have won a reprieve from a planned massacre, but their hopes to find unrelated mates are being dashed at the same time,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “It’s disappointing that the federal government still refuses to replenish the priceless genetic diversity lost through its own mismanagement of these wolves.”

Under the new plan, the wolf population will be allowed to grow beyond its current cap of 325 wolves over an eight-year period. Meanwhile, 22 wolves will be released from captivity to foster greater genetic diversity.

While the agency has set population goals, it is unclear whether the newly introduced wolves will successfully breed with wild populations.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is hinging genetic health to an irrelevant metric,” said Maggie Howell, Wolf Conservation Center executive director, in a statement. “Unless those cross-fostered wolves who survive to breeding age actually reproduce, those animals have zero impact on the wild gene pool. So how are they moving the needle any closer to a genetic objective?”

Environmental groups argue the agency — and wolves — would be more successful if full wolf families were released from captivity. Bonded male-female pairs with pups would have a greater chance of surviving and breeding than lone pups.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, only 13 out of 72 previously cross-fostered pups are known to have survived to today. Four of those animals produced pups, increasing the Mexican gray wolf population by an estimated 3%.

“Sadly it has become the norm for this program to ignore the best science and public support for actual, robust wolf recovery and instead opt for the minimum,” said Chris Smith, Southwest wildlife advocate at WildEarth Guardians in a statement. “These wolves need real genetic rescue, access to more habitat, and an essential designation. This rule — while a fractional improvement on the prior attempt — still fails lobos.”

Under the new conservation plan, takings on federal lands will be restricted until the population reaches the agency’s benchmarks.

The moratorium on wolf kills even applies to wolves that have attacked ungulates, although state agencies can request approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service to take wolves if they are severely depleting wild ungulate populations.

With lethal removal largely banned during this period, the Fish and Wildlife Service will encourage livestock producers and landowners to adopt nonlethal means of driving away wolves including the use of guard animals, range riders and fladry — a rope with flapping material strung across a fence meant to keep wolves at bay.

Nevertheless the agency reserves its own right to use “lethal removal for problem wolves under circumstances where the service determines that immediate removal of a particular wolf, or wolves, from the wild is necessary.”

Landowners can still kill or injure wolves on non-federal lands found “in the act of biting, killing or wounding” a domestic animal or livestock.

The agency anticipates its goals will be met by 2030 and give the population a 90% likelihood of surviving over the next century.

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USDA Forest Service

A Mexican gray wolf